Men of Valor

They fought the deadliest war in history. They are known as the Greatest Generation. In recognition of Memorial Day, three WWII veterans share their stories of survival against desperate odds



Carolyn Fong

Carved into the Veterans Monument on Greenwich Avenue are the names of 162 young men who did not return from World War II. Their stories died in the smoke of the battlefield. Of course, fifteen million Americans did come back alive—bands of brothers, ghost soldiers, flyboys, code-breakers, every man a cog in the great wheel of the war. But now they too are dying, at a rate of 700 a day. The great majority of their stories never got told but casually, among family and friends, and the broad effect is that pieces of our national history go when they go.

In honor of Memorial Day, we present the extraordinary war stories of three Greenwich men: Chuck Standard, a U.S. Navy dive-bomber pilot in the Pacific; R. Power Fraser, a U.S. Army Air Force navigator who went on twenty-eight bombing missions over Germany; and Lloyd Hull, an information officer aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Sixty-eight years have passed since the war ended. But as each man recounts his experiences, the years fall away from his face, and moments of the war’s extremities come alive all over again.

Beyond Darkness: Chuck Standard

Charles “Chuck” Standard, a railroad switchman’s son from Bensenville, Illinois, is a happy-go-lucky ninety-three year old. In June of 1944, he was twenty-five, and raiding Japanese islands and warships in the Philippine Sea.

Standard had many great adventures in the Pacific, but the mission he remembers most vividly is the one that nearly killed him. The date was June 20, 1944. Standard’s aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, had picked up a message indicating the position of the Japanese fleet’s main body some 300 miles away. This distance unnerved the pilots in the Yorktown’s ready room. “God, they’re off my chart,” said one. “Use the small scale, you dope,” said a second. “No matter what scale you use, they’re beyond our gas range,” a third pointed out. Another dispiriting factor: Dusk was approaching, meaning the mission would be carried out in darkness. None of the pilots had ever made a night landing on a carrier, and there were visions of crash landings on the decks.

Admiral Marc Mitscher, commander of the fast carrier task force that included the Yorktown, sent them anyway, knowing that some, maybe most, planes would run out of gas and drop into the shark-riddled ocean. But the Americans had not been able to engage Japanese carriers since 1942; the opportunity was simply too ripe to pass up. And with luck, the downed crewmen would be rescued from their rafts in the following days.

The pilots and their gunners left the Yorktown shortly after four in the afternoon. When Standard reached the fleet around 7 p.m., he saw that its three aircraft carriers had already been hit, so he picked out a heavy cruiser that was throwing up bursts of flak around his Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. “I looked around and I saw white puffs, black puffs, orange puffs. And it went through my mind, ‘Isn’t this pretty!’” He laughs heartily at the strange disconnect. “Then I went into my dive, and it was like diving into a funnel. I could see tracers and everything going by me, but that didn’t scare me for some reason. I just didn’t think I’d get hit. I was numb to that idea. But how they missed me, I’ll never know.”

Standard dropped his bombs from 2,000 feet, scoring a direct hit on the cruiser, and flew off into the darkening sky. Soon the world grew black; neither the sky nor the ocean was visible amid the clouds. “No stars, no moon, nothing. It’s like closing your eyes.” Under these conditions, pilots sometimes fall prey to vertigo and spiral off into the sea, disintegrating on impact. And suddenly it began happening to Standard. Despite surviving many close calls under heavy fire, it was in the emptiness of the vast ocean that he first felt fear. “I’d seen guys at night get vertigo, and in thirty seconds they were dead,” says Standard. “I ran a tight turn with my wing down, and all the while I was thinking I was flying straight and level. That’s vertigo.” He realized what was happening just before going into a death spin. “So I went on instruments immediately, because during training they say, ‘Trust your instruments, trust your instruments,’ over and over.”

A second bout of vertigo struck thirty minutes later. With all four fuel tanks now running low, Standard found himself trying to decide between two terrible options: bail out, or attempt a crash-landing in the unseeable water. He thought about the sharks. He thought about trying to land while vertigo-impaired, his breath heaving and his head spinning. Standard consulted his gunner, Bob Phillips, still alive today in California: bail or crash? Phillips said calmly, “Oh, you can make it, Mr. Standard.”

Standard kept the plane aloft. But as the fuel tanks drained, he had little idea, out in the black ocean, where the Yorktown might be: “Almost out of gas, no horizon, and lost.” Then, off to his right, he saw what he thought were flares. He flew toward them, but strangely they seemed to be going off everywhere, all over the sky. He heard his radio say, “Don’t home on the lightning, which is south of the formation.” It was the only clue Standard needed. He angled toward the ships and sighted a beacon up ahead. (Mitscher had riskily ordered lights-on for the returning pilots, breaking with protocol and making a target of his ships; but the decision earned him the undying gratitude of his pilots.) No matter that the beacon belonged not to the Yorktown, but to the small Jeep carrier USS Cabot: Any carrier would do in a crisis. Standard made a series of tight turns—he lacked the fuel to make the normal looping approach—and swooped in on the deck. His tank had just gone dry.

Many pilots weren’t so lucky. Of the 204 dive-bombers, fighters and torpedo-bombers launched that afternoon, about seventy ditched at sea or crashed into the carrier decks; the great majority of these were the dive-bombing SB2Cs. One message that came across Standard’s radio: “Hey, Joe, I’m running out of gas—just enough to make a water landing. If I don’t get back, tell my wife I got a hit on a Japanese carrier, will you?” “There was no panic or fear in his voice,” Standard says. “I remember saying under my breath, ‘I’ll be joining you soon.’” Of course, Standard survived what is now known as the Mission Beyond Darkness.

“They spent a week picking up pilots all over the ocean.” Forty-nine crewmen were lost. For his valor Standard was awarded the Navy Cross.

After the war, he settled in Riverside and worked for many years in sales for A.C. Nielsen, NBC and Adweek magazine. “I always know that things will work out okay,” he says. “I’ve always thought that. I guess I’m a strange guy.”

Shot Out of the Sky: Power Fraser   

R. Power Fraser Jr., the twenty-one-year-old navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress, spent the early months of 1945 assigned to the Eighth Army’s 490th bomb group, 850th squadron, taking out German factories.

Synthetic oil refineries, crucial to the Nazi war machine, were especially dangerous targets, since they were well defended by antiaircraft fire. Even flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet, Fraser’s nine-man crew would see flak bursting in black puffs all around them, so thick that it appeared they could walk on it (indeed “walking on the flak” became popular shorthand among B-17 crews). Bombers felt all the more vulnerable for having to fly level and straight, without evasive action, for about ten minutes prior to bombs away in order to measure out an accurate hit. Not infrequently did Fraser’s crew return to their base in Eye, England, to find their plane shot up with holes. “On these missions,” says the native of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, “one bomber out of four was going to go down.”

On April 9, 1945, Fraser flew his twenty-eighth mission over Germany. His plane, nicknamed “Lucky Strike,” had just dropped its bombs over Schleissheim Airfield, near Munich, when it flew through a dense curtain of flak and shuddered violently. Then a shell exploded on the left wing, obliterating an engine. The pilot, William Schoenfeld, looked out his window and saw the wing in flames from tip to fuselage and drawing a sheet of fire behind it. Fraser estimated that Switzerland was only seventy to 100 miles away, and with this in mind, Schoenfeld put the B-17 into a dive in an effort to smother the flames. But the plane continued to burn; Schoenfeld leveled out and gave the order to bail.

Gunner Eugene Malmstedt crawled out of the ball turret—a plexiglass capsule set in the belly of the plane—only to be singed by flames raging in the bomb bay. Looking toward the radio room, Fraser saw radio operator Dan Bereck motionless on the floor and waistgunner Dean Smith bending over him. The plane lurched and went into a violent spin, and Malmstedt jerked open the waistgunner’s door, and he went flying out into the minus-forty-degree air. Gunner Irwin Wrampe leapt out shortly thereafter. Above them, Schoenfeld, copilot Raymond Schar, engineer Frank Alexander, gunner-bombardier Ray Swallow and Fraser bailed out of the nose hatch.

In the thin altitude, Fraser recalls, “The first conscious action that I took was I pulled the rip cord. I must have pulled it so hard that I lost my glove, because my hand was starting to freeze.” As Fraser descended, he began to be able to breathe again. “Back under 15,000 feet, you get oxygen and all of a sudden things brightened up.” Below him spread a patchwork of German farms. Civilians caught sight of the parachutes floating down, and they ran across the fields in the hope of capturing the men.

The flaming plane broke up at 10,000 feet. As far as anyone knows, neither Bereck nor Smith ever left the plane. Smith, in rushing to Bereck’s aid, had left his oxygen tube and apparently become disoriented before he could jump. Both are listed as killed in action.

Fraser and Schoenfeld landed together in a field. When they looked up they saw two farmers standing over them with pitchforks raised. A young corporal hurried onto the scene and took them into custody. Swallow, the bombardier (who would later be shot to death on a San Diego street corner), emerged from view a short distance away and shouted, “For chrissakes, don’t leave me here!”—a smart move, since at this late point in the war civilians were apt to mob and pummel downed enemies. Fraser recalls the corporal treating the Americans well enough, perhaps because his brother had been captured by the Americans in Africa and “was having the time of his life.”

Things were about to get worse. En route to a POW camp, the civilian train they were riding in halted abruptly and everyone was ordered off; American planes swiftly descended and strafed the train, but failed to knock out its engine. Finally they arrived at the massive Stalag VII-A, in Moosburg, on the Danube River. (The other four were also captured and interned in the camp.) “The most terrifying thing about going into prison camp was seeing these guys who had been there for a year or two, emaciated and full of sores,” says Fraser, now eighty-nine, who lives in Milbrook and worked as an executive at American Felt & Filter.

Fraser and his crewmates subsisted on bread, tea and potato peelings. Once a month, rather surprisingly, the POWs were permitted Red Cross care packages of spam, canned tuna, chocolate, crackers and two packs of cigarettes. “I went out one night and took a cap off some electrical device, a fuse box I think, and it made a perfect pot,” Fraser recalls. “We took the spam and the potato peelings and made a stew.”

Within a couple of weeks they could hear “big stuff” falling in the distance; Fraser recalls the sound growing louder day by day. On April 29, Gen. George Patton’s Third Army tanks burst through the Stalag gates, liberating the roughly 80,000 war prisoners. When Patton himself appeared, standing in his Jeep with a pearl-handled revolver glimmering on each hip, the whole camp let out a deafening roar.

Surviving Kamikazes: Lloyd Hull   

Not long ago, while vacationing in Charleston, South Carolina, Lloyd Hull and his family made a short daytrip across the harbor to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Among the warships anchored there is the destroyer USS Laffey, nicknamed “The Ship That Would Not Die” after a wave of kamikaze planes slammed into her guns and decks, crippling but miraculously failing to sink her. “Probably no ship has ever survived an attack of the intensity that she experienced,” the historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote of the April 16, 1945 attack.

Hull, a lawyer who lives off Round Hill Road, told the man on duty that he’d like to take his family aboard. “Who are you?” the man asked. Hull produced his old navy ID card, and the man smiled. “Everybody goes aboard free,” he said.

As Hull boarded the Laffey, the old memories came flooding back. In the spring of 1944, he was the twenty-one-year-old commander in charge of the Laffey’s Combat Information Center, a cramped room beneath the bridge lit by the dim green glow of the radar screen. Hull, a New York native, and his crew of twelve would read the various gadgets and feed information to the bridge.

In late May, the Laffey steamed quietly over to Plymouth, England, to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. “Plymouth—what a mess,” Hull recalls of the bombed-out seaport. “We’d be walking with some of the English officers up the street, and they’d walk to where their house was. Wasn’t there anymore. They didn’t cry, they just kept a straight face. When we saw what the Germans had done to innocent civilians, we knew what we were fighting for.”

On June 6, D-Day, the Laffey crossed the English Channel and fired its guns off Utah and Omaha beaches in support of the massive Allied invasion of France. “I was on the bridge when I wasn’t on duty below,” Hull says. “And I could see shell fire hitting the coast. And we felt grateful that we weren’t one of those poor guys on the beach. We were just as vulnerable, but at least we were clean and we had food all the time.”

The following night, the USS Meredith, a sister destroyer, hit a submerged mine and slowly sank. As for the USS O’Brien: On June 25, together with the Laffey and other ships, it was firing on Cherbourg when it took a direct hit to the Combat Information Center. “The Germans wiped out the entire CIC in that ship, killed everybody,” Hull says. “One or two ships over, the guns would have hit us, and I wouldn’t be here right now.” During the same battle, the Laffey also took a hit, on the starboard bow, but the shell failed to explode.

“I think Normandy was a morale blow to the Japanese, because they thought Hitler was invincible—and he wasn’t,” Hull says. It was to Japanese waters that the Laffey headed next. Though the U.S. Navy had dealt the Japanese fleet a serious blow in the 1942 Battle of Midway, the Japanese tenaciously defended their outlying islands well into 1945.

The island of Okinawa, roughly the size of Long Island, is 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland and was considered the key staging ground for an Allied invasion. In the early months of 1945 the various island battles—Iwo Jima was the bloodiest and most famous—culminated in the Battle of Okinawa. It began on April 1. The Laffey had been protecting fleet ships bombarding Okinawa when it drew picket duty—dicey work that involved stationing ships close to Japanese airfields to intercept radar signals. Typically picket ships were the first sighted and first attacked. The work was all the more harrowing that spring because of the new Japanese tactic of pummeling Allied warships with swarms of suicide bombers. The Japanese called these ships “Floating Chrysanthemums.”

On the morning of April 16, shortly after breakfast, Hull’s radar man spotted an ominous cluster of pips streaming down from the north. Five minutes later, at 8:30 a.m., four planes broke off from the cluster and dove at the Laffey, two at the bow and two at the stern. Captain Frederick Julian Becton ordered a hard left turn in order to face the bombers broadside, and the ship’s gunners “splashed” all four into the sea.

But the kamikazes kept coming. The sixth plane managed to strafe the ship, wounding several men, before being downed fifty yards out. The seventh grazed a gun mount, killing one man. The ninth scored a direct hit: three more dead and the deck now in flames. The tenth and eleventh slammed into the fantail, detonating the bombs they carried, and wiping out more men and more guns. The smoking ship turned mad circles, making it hard for the inexperienced kamikaze pilots to draw a bead on her. “They were just taught to take off and land on somebody,” Hull says. “So a lot of them fell into the sea on either side of us.”

“But the guys shooting the guns topside really took a beating,” he continues. “We were down working the machines, doing surface search, air search, sonar. The ship would list hard and things would go sliding across the table. But no, it wasn’t chaos. It was like a bad dream. These planes were coming in like hail.”

In all, twenty-two planes dove on the Laffey that morning, seven of them striking her and four dropping bombs; one bomb rocked the bridge right above Hull’s CIC. When the skies were peaceful again—American Combat Air Patrol had dashed in, finally—the Laffey was a burning wreck, taking on water. Of the 336-man crew, thirty-two died in the attacks and seventy-one were injured. “I lost one man in my CIC group,” Hull says with obvious emotion. “He had his leg shot off. Freddy Burgess. Nice kid, very bright. If he hadn’t gone into shock I think we could have saved him.”

Today at ninety, Lloyd Hull still dresses up each weekday and drives to his law office in downtown Greenwich. He remembers the war years, following hard on the Great Depression, as a time when Americans knew how to pull together. But he added, “They think we had a war to end all wars. As long as there are human beings, there are going to be wars.”

 

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